The New American Lawn
Why a tapestry of white clover, violets, and more is the new great American lawn
Dear Avant Gardener, Our backyard has a section of what we loosely call “grass.” If we were in a suburban neighborhood, our "grass" would be considered not great looking. I would like to add some native, low-growing seed to fill it in. The center gets around six-plus hours of sun, but as it gets closer to the trees around the edge, it gets maybe two hours. It gets muddy and we just got a dog. Where can I buy something that would not be full of chemicals and be good for the environment? — “Grassy” Is Good Enough, West Greenwich, RI
Yay for embracing the new American lawn! Your “grassy” area is probably a tapestry of turfgrass and low-growing herbaceous plants, both native and non-native. And that’s much better for the environment than “great looking” suburban lawns, which require mind-boggling amounts of water, fuel, and chemicals to stay that way.
American lawns consume 20 trillion gallons of water, 90 million pounds of fertilizer, 78 million pounds of pesticides and 600 million gallons of fossil fuels per year. — Perfect Earth Project
In addition, traditional lawns host virtually no beneficial insects, even without pesticides. If they are treated with pesticides, they contribute to the alarming decline in insect and amphibian populations.
Homeowners use up to 10 times more chemical pesticides per acre on their lawns than farmers use on crops, and they spend more per acre, on average, to maintain their lawns than farmers spend per agricultural acre. During a rain, the pesticides and fertilizers you put on your lawn can be carried by runoff and end up contaminating a stream or wetland dozens of miles away. – USDA
Runoff from these over-fertilized lawns contribute to dead zones like the one in Narragansett Bay in 2001 that killed 4.5 billion mussels.
They found that the healthy mussels could filter the equivalent of the entire volume of Narragansett Bay in just 20 days. But within weeks of the die-off, that filtering capacity dropped by 75 percent. — Brown University
A year later, only one of the nine impacted reefs was recovering. According to researchers Andrew Altieri and Jon Witman, then at Brown University, this threatened the long-term health of the bay.
Redefining “great” — and “lawn”
So, picture-perfect suburban lawns are the ones that are really “not great.” On the other hand, your tapestry mix allows you to grow a variety of plants adapted to the various conditions in your yard — sun, water, soil — without chemicals or irrigation. And, in Rhode Island, you can reduce fuel use by mowing only twice a month in spring and once a month in the summer, when you get less rain. Mowing infrequently and setting your mower blade high (four inches, if possible) will also provide more habitat for beneficial insects. That sounds pretty great to me.
By the way, your term “grassy” is more correct than “tapestry lawn.” By definition, lawns are grass, specifically “a stretch of open, grass-covered land, especially one closely mowed, as near a house, on an estate, or in a park.” (Dictionary.com)
Let’s change that definition! I’m going to call traditional lawns — think golf courses — “turf” and their plants “turfgrasses.” That frees up “lawn” to mean areas of mown or very low-growing groundcover plants that tolerate foot traffic and are good for paths and play. A relatively small number of plant species suit such lawns. And while I’m all for replacing turf with taller native plants, the result isn’t what I call “lawn” (though I’ve seen that usage online).
Defined shapes signal intentionality
Are you ready for some unsolicited advice? Consider giving your lawn a more defined shape to signal the tapestry is a choice, not lack of care. I’ve marked up your photo (below) with one approach, defining a symmetrical oval lawn by extending the boulders along the patio (love them!). Around the outside, you can add flowering perennials in front of the window to attract butterflies (yellow scribble), shrubs to the left to attract and feed birds (purple scribble), and shade-loving shrubs tucked into the woods for privacy if needed in summer (blue scribble).
Back to the seed question
I can’t think of a great native lawn plant that you can grow from seed now to fill in your lawn this summer. Sorry. Most of the best native plants for a northeastern lawn should be planted in fall for natural cold stratification over the winter — and even then some are difficult to grow. Creeping fescue, an American native, is an exception, but it won’t like your moist conditions.
So I recommend seeding the bare areas of your lawn now with white clover, available inexpensively in bulk from American Meadows and many others. Clover is generally more shade tolerant than grass, fertilizes the soil by fixing nitrogen, and nurtures generalist bees like the European honey bees for many months. It also stays fairly low without mowing. In areas like Rhode Island with sufficient rainfall, clover is a great addition to a turfgrass lawn.
But please don’t remove turf and replace it with a monoculture of white clover. A Facebook commenter told me she’s doing that “Because grass is a non native invasive species and clover flowers and the butterflies and bees love it.” But turfgrass is not invasive! And clover is not native — and is even on several state invasive species lists! Clover is more resilient than turfgrass, but it has shallow roots relative to native plants and likes moisture, so it can die off in a drought.
Unfortunately, your new clover may not hold up to the dog. Any muddy patches that remain in the fall will give you an opportunity to plant natives with much more value to native butterflies and ‘at risk’ native bumblebees than clover — as you can see from the chart above. I recommend seeding remaining bare areas with American self-heal (see Prairie Legacy). If you’re up for the expense of plugs, consider planting common blue violets and, in the sunny area, wild strawberry; both should be available in Rhode Island through Prickly Ed’s.
In the meantime, have fun with the new dog!
— The Avant Gardener
P.S. Regular readers, please consider upgrading to a paid subscription so I can reach more people interested in the art and science of ecological landscaping.
Why, How, Wow!
There’s nothing inherently evil about cold season turfgrasses, but the cult of “perfect” lawns (encouraged by the lawn maintenance industry) causes enormous environmental damage. For example, fertilizer runoff contributes to hypoxia — dead zones in coastal areas.
There are many physical, chemical, and biological factors that combine to create dead zones, but nutrient pollution is the primary cause of those zones created by humans. Excess nutrients that run off land or are piped as wastewater into rivers and coasts can stimulate an overgrowth of algae, which then sinks and decomposes in the water. The decomposition process consumes oxygen and depletes the supply available to healthy marine life.
Dead zones occur in coastal areas around the nation and in the Great Lakes — no part of the country or the world is immune. The second largest dead zone in the world is located in the U.S., in the northern Gulf of Mexico. – NOAA
My Rhode Island lawn — now reduced to defined paths and seating areas — is a mix of turfgrass, clover, violets, American self-heal, path rush, and some kind of false strawberry (Appalachian? Indian?). We don’t irrigate or fertilize and Pete mows infrequently with an Ego battery mower.
Here’s a chart to help you decide which native lawn plants will work best in your lawn. (A note re cost: Seeding is less expensive than planting plugs, and turfgrass and white clover seeds are currently less expensive than native plant seeds.)
A search for “tapestry lawn” turns up lots of lovely pictures of mostly exotic plants. And searches for my favorite natives in lawns turn up articles on how to kill them! Egad! Here’s what I could find from down here in Florida to show how beautiful these look in a lawn.
Want to learn more about these native lawn replacements? Watch Dan Jaffe Wilder’s seminal presentation, Kill Your Lawn.
Reconsidering your relationship with lawn? Try my lawn care, the environment, and our ecosystem self-assessment.
Want that lush, grassy look? Read Love the Look and Feel of Grass? These Ground Covers Are for You.
Ready to switch to a battery-operated mower? Pete (and Wirecutter) love the Ego. #amazonaffiliate
When several readers balked at my warning that red and white clover are Japanese beetle hosts, I asked a couple of experts to weigh in — just in case my exasperation over the clover craze had influenced my recommendations. They say the benefits of white clover outweigh any negatives, even in areas like St. Paul with heavy Japanese beetle infestations.
Although white clover (Trifolium repens) is listed as a “2x” [host] plant (“generally light feeding”) plant, in my experience it is uncommon to see adult JB feeding on white clover foliage or blooms. The adults much prefer more upright favored hosts. . . . But clover lawns aren’t necessarily fool-proof. My mixed tall fescue-microclover back yard looked great for 2 years, then an inordinately cold winter killed out the clover and I had to reseed it. And we still got grubs in the mixed clover/grass stands, although not in the pure clover. — Daniel Potter, Professor Emeritus, Department of Entomology, University of Kentucky
As part of bee lawn seed mixes, Dutch white clover is a good foraging crop for many native bees [and] tolerates mowing. This legume blooms from May to October in Minnesota. . . . So I would not recommend people stop planting white clover. Japanese beetles are here two months, and white clover blooms as forage for bees for six months, and I think that benefit outweighs our need to manage Japanese beetles. . . . Being that drier soil is less favorable to grubs, people might reduce grub viability by planting drought-tolerant fine fescues thus reducing lawn irrigation. — Julie Weisenhorn, Associate Extension Professor and Educator, Department of Horticultural Science, University of Minnesota
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Just bought some white clover to fix some patchy areas of my lawn until I'm ready to do more intensive planting, thanks for the recommendation!
The clover controversy continues: Subscriber Cindy Lang of Thomaston, Maine, pointed out that it should not be included in the chart of native tapestry lawn plants; she's right and I took it out. She emailed, "I hate the clover as it is in my beds and totally smothers my native seedlings and small plants. That and the buttercup and oh so many more."